The Thirteen Treasures of the North

The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain appear in a number of medieval Welsh manuscripts. The earliest is the autograph of Gwilym Tew in Peniarth Manuscript 51 and is dated to 1460. It introduces the list as ‘The Names of the Thirteen Treasures which were in the North’.

This shows the Thirteen Treasures were intimately associated with the Old North: the Brythonic-speaking kingdoms of northern England and southern Scotland that arose in post-Roman Britain and fell to Anglo-Saxon and Scottish rule between the 6th and 11th centuries. Most of the owners of the treasures are included in the genealogies of the Men of the North.

In later lists, notes were added describing the magical properties of the treasures. The following is a variant in the hand of Rowland Lewis o Fallwyd from Cardiff MSS 17 (16th C) cited by Rachel Bromwich in The Triads of the Island of Britain.

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THE THIRTEEN TREASURES OF THE ISLAND OF BRITAIN

(The Names of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, which were in the North):

1. Dyrnwyn (‘White-Hilt’), the sword of Rhydderch the Generous: if a well-born man drew it himself, it burst into flame from its hilt to its tip. And everyone who used to ask for it would receive it; but because of this peculiarity everyone used to reject it. And therefore he was called Rhydderch the Generous.

2. The Hamper of Gwyddno Long-Shank: Food for one man would be put in it, and when it was opened, food for a hundred men would be found in it.

3. The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.

4. The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy: if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.

5. The Halter of Clydno Eiddyn, which was fixed to a staple at the foot of his bed: whatever horse he might wish for, he would find in the halter.

6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd the Horseman, which would serve for twenty-four men to eat at table.

7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).

8. The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpened his sword on it, if he (then) drew blood from a man, he would die. If a cowardly man (sharpened his sword on it), he (his opponent) would be no worse.

9. The Coat of Padarn Red-Coat: if a well-born man put it on, it would be the right size for him; if a churl, it would not go upon him.

10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food might be wished for in them, it would be found.

12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver.

13. The Mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.

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The whereabouts of some of the treasures can be identified through the locations of their owners. The map of the Old North below is taken from Wikipedia and originates from John T. Koch’s Celtic Culture. I have added the numbers of the treasures.

Thirteen Treasures of the North Map

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It has been suggested that, like the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann from Irish tradition: the Stone of Fál, Spear of Lug, Sword of Nuada, and Cauldron of the Dagda, the Thirteen Treasures of the North are ‘hallows’: holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld.

The magical properties of the Thirteen Treasures, which grant wishes, provide copious amounts of food or drink, and have a testing function, may be suggestive of origins in Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld, which was later known as Faery.

If this is the case, it may be conjectured that stories once existed about how the owners won the treasures. This is supported by the inclusion of the story of the theft of cauldron of Dyrnwch in Culhwch and Olwen, which also mentions the Hamper of Gwyddno and a magical horn.

In the existing lists their magic is less associated with Annwn than with the ruling elites of post-Roman Britain whose hunger for power and internecine rivalry led to the fall of the Old North to the Anglo-Saxons. This world was dominated by male warlords and, for me, as a female awenydd living in the 21st century, is one I find difficult to connect with.

For me the question has arisen of whether the Thirteen Treasures are holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld relevant to today or the rich boy’s toys of a forgotten age. Through research, meditating, journeying, and writing, I have attempted to provide an answer.

Over the next twelve days, as an alternative to the twelve days of Christmas (this works because 10 and 11 are included together), I will be posting original poems based on my experiences with the treasures along with notes documenting my research.

5 thoughts on “The Thirteen Treasures of the North

  1. Greg says:

    Claiming back the ‘toys’ from the rich boys and restoring their proper context sounds like a good idea!

    I look forward to following your reflections over the next twelve days .

    • lornasmithers says:

      No it’s very much a man’s world 😦 Saying that in a couple of the alternative lists there are two treasures belonging to women – the Mantle of Tegau and the Ring of Eluned – but they come from literary rather than traditional sources and are much later.

      I’m not sure I’ve seen an Invisibility Cloak in Cotswolds, but then could you see it?… Maybe it’s worth asking behind the counter???

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